Breastfeeding reduces breast cancer risk; the longer a person breastfeeds the more their risk is reduced.
The risk of breast cancer decreases by around 4% for every 12 months of breastfeeding.
The UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. Around 72.7% of babies in England have breast milk after birth.
Around 4.7% of breast cancer cases in the UK may be a result of not breastfeeding.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends to exclusively breastfeed for the first 6 months. Afterwards, children should be given complementary foods alongside breast milk.
What are the benefits of breastfeeding for infants and mothers?
Breastfeeding has many benefits for both you and your child. Babies who are breastfed have a reduced risk of death from infectious diseases, hospitalisation for diarrhoea, and fewer respiratory and ear infections. Adults who were breastfed as children have a reduced risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Mothers who breastfeed have a reduced long-term risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, ovarian and breast cancer. A greater reduction of the risk is seen for longer periods of breastfeeding.
What effect does breastfeeding have on breast cancer risk?
A large study found that breastfeeding could decrease the risk of breast cancer by 4.3% for every 12 months of breastfeeding. This did not vary between high and low income countries or with age, menopausal status, ethnic group, or age of the mother at first birth.
In the UK, an estimated 4.7% of breast cancer cases are associated with not breastfeeding.
What proportion of women in the UK breastfeed and how do UK breastfeeding rates compare to other countries?
The UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. According to an NHS survey, in 2010 81% of babies were breastfed at least once after birth. This percentage is low, when comparing the UK with other countries such as Australia (92%) and Sweden (98%). In the UK, the percentage of babies that are being breastfed drops to 69% after one week and is even lower at 6 weeks (55%) and 6 months (34%).
More recently, in 2017 only 75% of Scottish mothers reported to have breastfed their child at least once. Figures from 2021 show that in England 72.7% of babies have breast milk as their first feed, while in Northern Ireland, only 61.8% of mothers attempted to breastfeed while in hospital.
Why do UK women choose not to breastfeed or stop breastfeeding early?
Mothers may worry about the baby not getting enough milk or may experience nipple pain and difficulties with latching. A lack of professional help or support from family and friends may also be a factor. Mothers may feel uncomfortable breastfeeding in public due to a lack of signposted breastfeeding public spaces. A lack of UK legislation on paid breaks to breastfeed and milk storage facilities may also be a barrier in the workplace.
What is the current recommendation for the duration of breastfeeding?
The NHS and WHO recommend exclusively breastfeeding (breast milk only) for the first six months of the baby’s life. Breastfeeding alongside solid food is recommended for babies from six months on. A mother and baby can carry on breastfeeding for as long as they like, and this continues to offer health benefits.
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